Darien Gap Crossing (Cartagena)

Trip Start Jul 01, 2011
Trip End Jul 21, 2012

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Monday, February 13, 2012

Although we put our car in a container in Panama and flew to Cartagena on February 2nd, we were still waiting for the container to be available here in Colombia. The cargo ship left on February 8th and the journey takes 1.5 days so we were hoping to open the container on February 10th... but this was wishful thinking. Containers are almost never available the day of the ship arrival but the next day. This meant February 11th, but since it was a Saturday we couldn't go through customs until Monday anyway. So we waited. I got in touch with the maritime line's office in Cartagena and with our customs agent last week so we could prepare as much stuff as possible on Friday and try to get the car back on Monday. Normally I wouldn't recommend using any paperwork facilitators for border crossings (unless you don't read/write Spanish) but I am SO glad we had an agent here for the port and customs procedure. There is so much back-and-forth between the maritime line, the port authority and customs and the whole process is so convoluted that it would probably have taken us days to get it all done if we didn't have the right kind of help. Our agents (Enlace Caribe) knew all of these processes like the back of their hand and they knew the people as well so they were able to accelerate and facilitate things a lot. In the end we were able to get our cars back around 7pm on Monday, the same day the container was unloaded: a small miracle.

Unlike in Panama I was unable to get into the port so I didn't witness the opening of the container. This was because we rented and shipped the container as one piece of merchandise so there was only one name on the official "bill of lading" document, and it was under my shipping partner's name (Robin). Although I was a bit disappointed, it ended-up being a very lucky coincidence because the port authority required a proof of accident insurance for anyone going into the port, and although I am covered by my US medical plan I don't have any "certificate" to prove it. Robin does. So about half of the 16-hours spent in the process were done without me. While Robin and our agent Sonia were active inside the port area I had to wait outside of the secure area with my Kindle and Saint Exupery as my companion.

For those of you who are looking for information on the process, here is some info about the various steps and when they happened. We were able to get the cars out the same day the container was made available but this is practically a miracle. For planning count at least two days, maybe even three, depending on how things line-up. Also keep in mind that boats can get delayed, and ports sometimes incur delays when they are very busy.

Friday (before arrival of the boat):
 - we payed the maritime line (Evergreen) for the container arrival expenses (about $165). This was easily done by going to the Banco Del Occidente in the Centro. Then we emailed the scanned receipts and Evergreen was able to print the original Bill of Lading document.
- we hooked-up with our Agent Sonia (from Enlace Caribe) who took us to the port to pick-up the original Bill of Lading from the Evergreen office. We arrived after closing time but Sonia knew everyone and convinced them to print the paper anyway. We also went to the security desk of the port to prepare Robin's authorization so he could enter the port on Monday.

Monday (the boat has arrived but the containers are not available yet)
- 8am: Sonia and Robin went to the port to fill some paperwork to prepare for the container unloading and opening. Due to congestion at the port ou container were still not unloaded, and was scheduled for 3pm.
- 10am: We all went the customs office to get the first set of papers prepared and officially schedule the inspection. The customs inspector said he had to see the container before 2.30pm otherwise it would have to wait tomorrow. Sonia bluffed and told the inspector that we would have the container at 2pm. Normally inspections are scheduled from one day to the next but for tourists they try to make exceptions. Sonia knows everyone and is very convincing!
- 11am: all done for now, nothing else to do until 1pm.
- 1.30pm: We are back at the port. Robin and Sonia enter the secure area once more while I stay outside. Using her contacts at Evergreen and at the port, she manages to have our container unloaded in priority. It is open right as the inspector arrives. Phew! Inspection is easy. The great news is that the cars didn't move inside the container despite the flimsy strapping. Robin and Sonia take the cars out of the container and park them in a special customs area. They cannot exit the port until we complete the customs process.
- 3pm: We are back at the customs office, waiting for the inspection report to be entered in the system and for our official customs approvals to be printed and signed by the boss. Once again Sonia knows everyone and accelerates the process whenever she can.
- 4.30pm: We have all the customs papers in hand. We triple-check them for errors and typos on the VIN numbers but they are perfect. Yippee!
- 4.45: Back at the port. I wait as Robin and Sonia go through the final port release process so we can take the cars out of the port. I naively think that this will be over very soon.
- 6.30pm: Robin drives out with my car. Yippee!
- 7.30pm: Robin drives out with his car. Apparently the port didn't want to let him take 2 cars out although the papers indicated that there were two cars in the same container. Sonia had to make him go through the port paperwork a second time so they would let him drive his own car out.
- 8pm: We settle our final bills at Sonia's office (cash only). In total the shipping cost us $995 in Panama and $790 in Cartagena for both cars, it's less than $900 per car.
- 8.30pm: I park in front of the hotel to unload the bags that we left in the car so we could avoid the hassle and cost of carrying our (many) bags on the plane. The hotel's manager then hops aboard with one of his friends to help me find parking.
- 9pm: I am back in the hotel room, exhausted but very happy. Getting our car back feels like getting our freedom back. We are now ready to explore South America!
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